MIND THE GAP: Otherness in Post-racial America John Sweeney
John A. Sweeney is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, where he also serves as a Researcher at the Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies. John also serves as a Deputy Editor for East-West Affairs: A Quarterly Journal of North-South Relations in Postnormal Times.
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History was supposed to have ended, at least this is what Francis Fukuyama told us. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the forces holding it up was supposed to have ushered in an era of enlightened elán— freedom had won the day, at least in theory. Fear of the monolithic Other was supposed to have been replaced with democratic reverie, if only for the market to provide "solutions." Of course, as the fable goes, all of this changed with 9/11. In a world of posts- (-modern, -colonial, -9/11), some things, however, remain the same.
As the deadliest incursion on American soil nested within the nation's shattered psyche, distinctions such as Sikh or Muslim made little difference to those seeking violent catharsis. In the chaotic aftermath of 9/11, hundreds of attacks targeting Sikh-Americans were reported. One of the most disturbing stories to emerge involved the brutal beating of Surinder Singh Sidhu, whose star-spangled turban did nothing to abate the fury of his attackers. Reciting "We'll kill bin Laden today" while they struck the 47-year old liquor store owner with a four-foot metal pole, the two twenty-something assailants never inquired about the spiritual beliefs of the long-time U.S. resident or took note of his rather patriotic headgear. As the dastar is a requirement for all initiated Sikh males, turbans are one of, if not, the most identifiable markers of Sikhism, which begs the question: what were they thinking? The most common answer is the most obvious: they were not. This, however, lets the perpetrators off too easy, which is to say that robbing them of some semblance of agency does nothing to expose the dark truth underlying such acts of terror. While one could easily say that such events are the result of jingoistic fervor, and perhaps a general lack of knowledge about religion, the truth is that Sidhu was attacked because he looked the part, which is to say that he was cast in the tragic roll of the ubiquituous, yet mysterious, Other—whose presence always-already signifies an abiding absence.
As one of, if not, the most recognizable Indian-American, and specifically Sikh, actors working in Hollywood today, Waris Ahluwahlia is no stranger to being cast in colorful parts, so to speak. In Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), which was Ahluwahlia's breakout role, he played Vikram Ray—the team's slumbrous, yet fearless, cameraman. In 2006's Inside Man, Ahluwahlia played Vikram Walia, whose dastar is unceremoniously removed following the release of hostages from an intricate bank robbery. When Vikram bemoans the harsh treatment he receives at the hands of New York City's finest, as well as the broader challenges of being an Other in post-9/11 America, a nonplussed Detective Frazier, played coolly by Denzel Washington, retorts, "I bet you can get a cab though." To which Walia stoically responds, "I guess that's one of the perks." When situated alongside the blatant profiling of African-American males in New York, also known as the city's stop-and-frisk policy, this exchange effectively reframes, if not lessens, the violence of Walia's treatment and seems to offer a moment of levity for Walia and Frazier, whose characters literally embody the struggles of countless Others navigating the harsh realities of "post-racial" America, which is anything but.
When Robert Gerhardt happened upon some graffiti in the New York City subway, he did what most would do—he tweeted a picture of it. Gerhardt clearly found the crude additions made to a Gap advertisement worth sharing, if only to show the vile sentiments of the anonymous assailants. The Gap ad features Ahluwahlia alongside a female model with the caption "Make Love." Vandals, however, altered the text to read, "Make Bombs." Additionally, the phrase "Please stop driving taxis" was scribbled beneath the amended tagline. It would be hard to imagine Walia and Frazer sharing a sense of connectedness at the defaced Gap ad, which is to say that post-racial America is more post- for some than it is for others. As word of the altered ad spread, Ahluwahlia wasted little time in responding on social media. On his personal Facebook page, Ahluwahlia posted a 2011 BBC article about an "Italian American Sikh female taxi driver in NYC" with the following message: "Make sure to say thank you to those awesome Taxi drivers that take you places. They left their native lands to pursue the American Dream. They work hard to make ends meet and support their families." Invoking the mythos of the American Dream and ignoring the incinderiary alteration of the ad's original tagline, Ahluwahlia appeals directly to the working-class sensibilities of Gap customers. In taking the high road, Ahluwahlia certainly left some other avenues of inquiry unexplored, and others were quick to champion Gap's supportive countermeasure. Applauding Gap's move to brand the "Make Love" ad its back ground image for its Twitter account, Arsalan Iftikhar reflects:
More than anything else, though, the moral of this story is to prove yet again that we certainly do not yet live in a "post-racial America" since minorities like South Asians (or other brown folks perceived to be Muslim or Arab) cannot even grace fashion advertisements without having nasty racial epithets hurled their way. But companies like Gap are doing a great job forging a path for minority and under-represented fashion models (like Waris Ahluwahlia above) who do not conveniently fit into our traditional American notions of beauty and actually challenge how we have superficially defined those terms since our country's existence. I want to live in an America where a fashion model can be a handsome, bearded brown dude in a turban who is considered as beautiful as a busty blonde-haired white girl in see-through lingerie. (Iftikhar 2013)
While Iftikhar aptly problematizes the concept of a "post-racial" America, his vision for the future, ought to elicit some critical questions, especially concerning the norms Gap does (and does not) challenge, particularly with regard to the plight of its South Asian employees. As Charles Kernaghan, Director of the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, reports, "the [Gap's] 3,750 workers at the Next Collections Limited factory in Ashulia are routinely forced to work over 100 hours a week, while being shortchanged of their legal wages — which are already well below subsistence levels" (Kernaghan 2013). Clearly, Iftikhar's aim was to make the best of a bad situation, but in slapping Gap on the back, so to speak, he overlooks the systemic violence underlying the retail giant's treatment of "brown folks." Iftikhar, then, invokes an all-too-familiar politics—one that provincializes class. Could one say the same of Ahluwahlia's Facebook post? Just to be clear, I abhor the type of symbolic violence unleashed upon the Gap ad, and I find the brutal subjective violence inflicted upon Sidhu to be nothing short of barbaric, but I find the systemic violence enlivened by Gap and other predominantly, but not uniqely, American clothing manufacturers just as detestable.
What makes violent ecologies like Gap's supply chain even more terrifying than graffiti on subways and horrific attacks on individuals is the degree of normalization with which such systems persist. When news spread of a collapsed building in Bangladesh, Gap did not change its twitter back ground in solidarity with the 1,000 victims. It certainly did nothing to bring light to the clothing it, and its subsidiaries such as Old Navy, produce under suspect conditions in Bangladesh. In fact, Gap was one a handful of companies who did not sign a safety agreement for workers in the wake of the collapse. As Kernaghan continues, "Gap is in violation of its own code of conduct and these abuses have been going on for more than two and a half years" (Kernaghan 2013). If Otherness in postracial America always-already signifies an absence, then one should be weary of its presence, especially if it conceals a dark truth. If history has indeed ended, then we must be living within some in-between space—one where systemic violence is certainly a link to the past and, unless we begin to imagine and craft alternative pathways ahead, it could very well be our bridge to the future. Mind the Gap.
Iftikhar, Arsalan. "How Gap Responded to Racism." The Daily Beast. November 26, 2013. <http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/11/26/gap-ad-featuring-an-indian-model-goes-viral-after-racist-vandalism.html>
Kernaghan, Charles. "Gap and Old Navy in Bangladesh." Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights. 2013. <http://www.globallabourrights.org/campaigns/gap-and-old-navy-in-bangladesh>
Morrison, Sarah. "Bangladesh factory collapse: Gap refuses to back safety deal." The Independent. May 14, 2013. <http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/bangladesh-factory-collapse-gap-refuses-to-back-safety-deal-8615599.html>